Friday, 22 February 2013

Trees in spring

Had I realised how tricky this was going to be I probably would not have committed myself to trees through the season which, inevitably, has to rely on photographs taken in previous years without a thought for this project.

There should be lovely pictures of rufus red leaves breaking out opaque bud covers (simply because these have had no change to start the photosynthesis which produces the chlorophyll which then gives the leaves their green colour).

The only picture I have that really shows this is of the sumac outside the kitchen door at The Hermitage and it is, therefore, a bit of a cheat.

Now these are young beech leaves which, because their bud covers are translucent, leap into the world the most gorgeous delicate green imaginable. Had I known I was going to write this blog I would have taken a picture in a beech woods looking up into the canopy just as the buds burst open to reveal these lovely leaves.

Where would spring trees be without flowers? This cherry stands – with others – in the churchyard of St Eustachious in Tavistock but the glory is short lived. Already the ground is carpeted in petals and within a few days they will all have fallen.

Blackthorn is a great delight: the flowers come out before the leaves but beware the long black thorns, the tips of which can break off so easily and are the very devil to prise out of the careless finger – thorns that will happily scoff at most gardening gloves.

Here is a photograph I took many years ago. It was this old, snow-covered blackthorn growing by the O Brook where the road crosses Saddle Bridge on Dartmoor that gave Marcia the name for the bridge leading to The Grange in The Dipper. Sadly, the blackthorn has long since washed away. I must admit this is not a spring picture: it was definitely winter and Marcia looks suitably bundled up against the cold.

Hawthorn – otherwise known as May – flowers after the leaves have appeared and somewhat later than the blackthorn. Does the old saying, “cast not a clout till May is out” refer to the hawthorn or to the month? The reason there are two pictures above is that Marcia and I couldn't decide which one to use so it seemed easiest to use both. Both are on Dartmoor – the one with the railings is at Venford Reservoir and the other on the open moor on Shapley Common.

This close up of the hawthorn flowers gives you some idea of how quickly things change when they get going. Some of the flowers have yet to open and others, having done their job, have already lost their petals.

Before we leave trees I thought I would include this avenue of copper beeches. They go nowhere and I have no idea why they were planted there but quite pleased that they were.

This weeks butterfly is a Silver-washed Fritillary Argynnis paphia. I forgot to give you the name last week: it was a Small Tortoiseshell Aglais urticae. I am only giving you the Latin names in case they are called something else where you live. In both cases I may have identified them incorrectly as this is noy an area in which I am at all expert.

The Blog Dog of the week is called Amber.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Trees in winter

So this week is about trees in winter. I am now back in my study having just enjoyed a fruit bun (Marcia had a pain au chocolat) and coffee in our kitchen, sitting by the window and looking at the ash trees growing in next door's garden just the other side of the wall. Will they be with us this time next year? We do hope so but with ash die back sweeping the country it may be a vain hope.

There is much talk about how to tackle global warming and the carbon emissions we create through the use of fossil fuels to meet our needs for power and to fuel our cars and so on. This doesn't help, of course, although one scientist produced a report (which I cannot now trace or I would give you a link to it) in which he calculated that in the USA carbon emissions are lower now than they were when the place contained millions and millions of buffalo. What few seem to mention (but those few do so with proof and passion and one of them is Sir David Attenborough) is that the real problem is the destruction of forest cover. This is in part through natural causes (hence the Sahara Desert, once tropical forest) and in part through logging. Either way there is a solution: plant more trees. Most of us can do a little bit of good in that direction as every single tree helps but it need concerted action to reclaim deserts and replace logged forests. Anyway, you can see why I feel trees are rather important and I hope that a few pictures will show that as well as being important they are beautiful.

Last week's solo photograph was taken in the snow and so was this one. What, without the snow, would be just a jumble of twigs is suddenly transformed.

More twigs, really, including a crow's nest used the summer before this was taken but not, for some reason, the one following and now all trace has gone.

This is one of my favourites. This is more than just a tree: it is host to a range of epiphytes such as mosses, lichens and ferns; to a large population of insects which means that it is a huge larder for many small birds.

Some trees are tall and elegant.

Others have a completely different outline (although they may be just as tall).

Some become little more than supports for ivy. Such a difficult plant, ivy. It can, does indeed, kill trees in the end by slow suffocation and I am hugely tempted to cut it away and give the tree a fresh lease of life BUT life is never that simple. Ivy provides birds and insects with shelter and food when both are in short supply – in the winter – as well as nesting sites – in the spring and summer.

Amazing how much difference the sun can make.

Helen suggested last week that we should look at butterflies and she is so right to say that they, too, are beautiful. I have not too many butterfly photos (probably not enough for a blog) but the ones I have can act as a tail piece until I run out. Is that fair enough?

Friday, 8 February 2013


One of the problems with writing a blog every week is that the writer's year includes a period when next to nothing happens that can be shared with that writer's readers. You could call this the blogger's desert and we are now in that.

It happens after all the excitement of rushing around looking at places, watching Marcia listening to (and sometimes talking to) her characters, discussing with her where her thoughts are taking her and so on. In the old days (when Transworld published Marcia in the summer rather than, as now, in the late autumn) it included signings and other events triggered off by publication day.

Then comes the day when the computer is opened, a new document is created, it is given a working title and Marcia starts to write. Then, for day after day and week after week that is what Marcia does. Obviously there are still booky things going on but apart from sometimes tempting you all by mentioning the return of an old character, I am under strict orders to reveal nothing at all.

There are a number of good reasons for this. Once I allowed you to know the working title of a book – The Ginger Jar – only it was published under the title The Prodigal Wife. To this day we receive emails asking us when The Ginger Jaris going to be published. Then there are the times when a book takes a totally unexpected turn and some of the early chapters require changes. Then there are the very weird times when something has happened in an early chapter that really makes very little sense and neither of us know why it is there. Some few thousand words later on the puzzle is resolved and then, with the full picture there to see, Marcia returns to see whether or not something jars or seems out of place. That rarely happens (in fact I can't remember it ever happening) but usually there is something to be added which gives the scene greater depth and meaning.

And so it was that, just as I was really thinking “this whole blog thing was a very bad idea” your comments on last week's blog gave me an idea. Whether or not you will all like that idea is, of course, something else. Since you like photos, how about running a few photo themes during these few months when Marcia has her head stuck in her laptop? (That is a piece of imagery I could not resist.)

It seemed right to resolve this picture to monochrome
So for the next few weeks the theme will be trees. We will start next week with trees devoid of leaf in the depths of winter allowing us to enjoy their skeletal beauty, then look at them in spring, high summer and lastly autumn. Now all I have to do is to hope that I have enough photos in the files to meet that specification. What shall we choose for the next theme? Any ideas?

Friday, 1 February 2013


On Wednesday we had to visit the hospital in Plymouth so that Marcia could have another check-up. You will be delighted to know that there are no signs that the cancer has returned.

There is one photograph that I want up on Dartmoor which requires really good visibility and so, the forecast suggesting that we would find just that, we set out from Plymouth to Tavistock for a quick cup of coffee in the Bedford Hotel before setting off up onto the moor proper - and into low cloud: thin cloud but cloud all the same. One day I shall get that picture, but that day was not last Wednesday.

On the way home there was a brief moment when the sun sent wonderful steaks of light on either side of a cloud. As so often happens, by the time I had grabbed a camera and it was ready to shoot, it was really too late: some of these light effects last for seconds and then they are gone. Anyway, here is how it was when I finally got myself organised.

Talking about clouds, did you know that there is a Cloud Appreciation Society? Well, there is and it has over forty thousand members. I am not one although I suppose I should be. Clouds are fascinating and here, on the peninsula that is the south west corner of England, we have a rapidly changing and often wonderful display of all sorts of cloud formations. Clouds are ephemeral: according to the Cloud Appreciation Society, the average lifetime of a cloud is only eleven but my observations suggest it is about twice as long.

Having said that, I have been known to watch fascinated as a cumulus cloud begins to appear out of a bright blue sky, grows and changes until, often quite suddenly, it starts to disappear and within a few minutes there is the bright blue cloudless sky once again.

For some reason, I find myself unable to resist the urge to take cloud pictures and so I have a large store of photographs taken in various parts of the south west which demonstrates just how variable they can be. Here are just some of them. Most, of course, are the result of luck: simply being in the right place
at the right time but some are planned – mainly sunsets since you know when they are going to happen and what the weather is like before you set out.

There is another missing photograph that has been bugging me for years. Here is the extract from Hattie's Mill:

James Barrington drove his second-hand Citroen Dyane jauntily through the narrow Devon lanes. James, born and raised in Dorset, was no stranger to high hedges, restricted visibility and inadequate passing places. Nevertheless, the recently purchased car was very precious to him and, despite the jauntiness, he kept a wary eye on possible damage to her paintwork. His mother had advised an introductory visit to Miss Wetherall at the Mill before he committed himself but refused his offer to come along for the ride and see for herself. She realised that James felt it incumbent upon himself to allay her motherly anxieties and, though she appreciated his offer, she suspected that he would prefer to take this step alone.
She was right. James was secretly relieved that she hadn't taken him up on his offer, enjoying this feeling of being out in the adult world at last; the owner of a car and a Mirror dinghy, in possession of a job and soon to be a householder. James, who had also been raised in the Anglican faith his father being a country parson, sang a tuneful snatch of the Te Deum and peered at a signpost that was all but obliterated by cow parsley and convolvulus. Abbot's Mill Creek 2 miles. He swung the wheel and headed down the narrow lane. The tall grasses and luxuriant summer growth leaned out to brush the car on each side and, as he slowed, he was aware of the scent of honeysuckle.
He rounded a bend, caught his breath and braked abruptly. Far below, the creek lay mysterious and still, its steep wooded banks clothed in a patchwork of green, the fields above - golden with standing corn or dotted with grazing sheep - swelling gently against the misty horizon. A soft haze, diffused with glowing sunlight, smudged the distant view but he could see a small sailing boat tacking its way up the river making the most of the gentle breeze and, his heart beating with a sudden excitement, James let in the clutch and followed the winding lane down to the head of the creek.

We know exactly where James stopped and I have wanted to take a photograph of that scene for about ten years. Unfortunately, every time we have managed to get there it is either raining or there is a heavy mist. Now we are again living much closer I might just have a better chance. We shall see.